Yosef Perl. Engraving, artist unknown. The medals were awarded to Perl for his educational activities by Tsar Alexander I in 1816, when Tarnopol was under Russian rule, and by Austrian Emperor Francis I in 1820. (YIVO)

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Perl, Yosef

(1773–1839), educator, writer, and a central figure in the Haskalah. Yosef Perl was born in Tarnopol to a wealthy family. His father, Todros, was a wine merchant and for some time also leased the communal concession for the tax on meat. In his youth, much to the displeasure of his father, Yosef was attracted to Hasidism. He became a partner in his father’s business and later an independent tax farmer. On business trips to Vienna, Hungary, and Galicia he met many maskilim and was influenced in particular by those in Brody, especially Dov Ber Gintsburg. Perl was also inspired by Menaḥem Mendel Lefin, who for a time lived nearby.

Active in the field of education, Perl received support from the Russian authorities (before 1815) and subsequently from the Austrian government; he even earned medals of honor. In 1813, he established a school in the spirit of the moderate Haskalah in Tarnopol. He maintained this institution until his death; and the school continued to exist until World War II. It was funded by a special payment for kosher slaughter from the local community and surrounding areas and from regular annual support from the local community. From 1813 to 1815, Perl printed calendars for the school, citing didactic passages from rabbinical literature and popular science (other such calendars remained in manuscript). He also attempted in 1828 to establish an association for encouraging crafts and industry, with the aim of introducing productive economic activities into Jewish life, and he planned in 1833 to establish a rabbinical seminary in the spirit of one that had been founded in Italy. These and other plans never materialized.

Title page of Boḥen tsadik (Investigating a Righteous Man), by Yosef Perl (Prague: M. J. Landau, 1838). (YIVO)

Perl became a vigorous opponent of Hasidism, which he regarded as having strayed from the path of tradition, and he based his arguments on the words of the Vilna Gaon and the latter’s disciples. Perl accused Hasidim of spreading ignorance, with threatening the welfare of the state, and with deceiving the masses. His anti-Hasidic activities were stimulated by the movement’s broad expansion into Volhynia, Podolia, and Galicia. Convinced that books had the power to effect change, Perl wrote anti-Hasidic satires. He also believed that the Austrian regime was a merciful kingdom that wished to benefit the people and improve their education, and so he bombarded officials with memoranda hostile to Hasidism, hoping the authorities would suppress the movement. Most of his suggestions were rejected, and his books had only limited influence.

Perl began his literary activity in the second decade of the nineteenth century, around the time of the publication of the stories of Naḥman of Bratslav and the compilation in praise of the Ba‘al Shem Tov called Shivḥe ha-Besht. He felt that these books exemplified the pernicious doctrines of Hasidism, and wrote his own books to a large degree to oppose them. Many of his writings in German, Hebrew, and Yiddish remained unpublished during his lifetime. Their importance lies not only in their literary significance but also in the historical information and the insights they provide into his objections to Hasidism.

Perl’s first anti-Hasidic work was an extended memorandum in German: Über das Wesen der sekte Chassidim (On the Essence of the Hasidic Sect), written between 1814 and 1816. He sent the manuscript to the governor of Galicia, Franz von Hauer, accompanied by a letter stating his intentions. Explaining that his work exposed the customs and way of life of Hasidim as expressed in their own books, Perl noted that he had not yet published his text because he feared persecution by the “sect.” Here he added that the “sect” was thriving “from hour to hour like the disease of cancer,” that it had to be cured from the root, and that it was the source of the dismal cultural condition of the Jews. The censor did not permit Perl to print the text (it was finally published by Avraham Rubinstein in Jerusalem in 1977); nevertheless, Perl’s efforts ensured that laws limiting Hasidism were tightened and that searches would lead to the confiscation of their books. Perl also sent the manuscript to Peter Beer and the historian Isaac Marcus Jost, who referred to it in their writings.

Perl’s next book was a parody of the tales of Naḥman of Bratslav. Written in Hebrew and Yiddish between 1816 and 1818, the text “concluded” Naḥman’s “The Story of the Loss of the Princess,” and added a new story titled “The Story of the Loss of the Prince,” which, in disguised fashion, mocked Hasidism (the book was published by Shmuel Werses and Chone Shmeruk, as Ma‘asiyot ve-igrot mi-tsadikim amitiyim ume-anshe shelomenu [Stories and Letters from True Tsadikim and from Men of Our Faith]; 1969). He added exchanges of letters purportedly by Hasidim: one of the imaginary correspondents is Natan Sternhartz of Nemirov, who was still alive at the time. Perl inserted historical facts into the framework of the story so that readers would think they were reading an original Hasidic document. The book was not printed during his lifetime.

Perl’s most important work is Megaleh temirin (The Revealer of Secrets; 1819), published under the pseudonym ‘Ovadyah ben Petaḥyah, who ostensibly collected and printed the material. ‘Ovadyah is presented as a Hasid who had frequented many tsadikim, possessed the power to make himself invisible, and had knowledge of the secret of kefitsat ha-derekh (instantaneous self-transport from one place to another). The book contains 151 “authentic” letters written by Hasidim, which ‘Ovadyah claims to have collected and presented in the form of a Hasidic book. A complex and twisting plot unfolds, and the main issue involves attempts by Hasidism to gain possession of “the book”—none other than Perl’s German book!—that negatively influenced the attitude of the authorities toward the movement. It also tells of the rivalry between two Hasidic courts.

Megaleh temirin is harshly critical of Hasidic society, its leaders, and its customs. It incorporates passages from Hasidic literature and historical episodes that depict followers as corrupt, backward, and ignorant. Perl added footnotes with quotations from Hasidic works; throughout, he cites actual places and presents realistic descriptions of Hasidic figures (disguised with numerological details and fictitious names). Naive readers could thus relate the major characters of the book to the people around them, and a sophisticated reader could decipher hidden meanings.

While Megaleh temirin had no particular influence on Hasidim, it did influence Hebrew literature, and some critics view it as the first Hebrew novel. It opened up the genre of maskilic anti-Hasidic satire and established a discourse that solidified the Haskalah’s treatment of Hasidism. Many writers of satires throughout the nineteenth century wrote sequels to the work, or rewrote it.

In the same spirit, Perl was preparing in 1825 to reprint the anti-Hasidic work of Yisra’el Loebel, Sefer vikuaḥ, adding notes and bringing it up to date. The censor prohibited its printing, but at the same time police searches among the Hasidim were made again for “forbidden books,” and the laws governing Hasidic prayer groups became even more restrictive.

A complaint that Perl lodged in 1827 against the tsadik Tsevi Hirsh of Zhidachov (Żydaczów) exemplifies Perl’s memoranda. His main complaint was that the Tsevi Hirsh’s Hasidim were spreading propaganda against Perl’s school in Tarnopol. He stated that it was the intention of Tsevi Hirsh to come to Zbaraż in the coming days and to give a speech in which he would certainly speak out against the school and raise money from members of the Jewish community. On the basis of Perl’s complaint, Tsevi Hirsh was expelled from Zbaraż.

In 1830, Perl published Divre tsadikim (Words of the Righteous), which included a “conversation” between two Hasidim about the nature of Megaleh temirin and its author. This dialogue was written by Yitsḥak Ber Levinzon as Megaleh sod. Perl added three letters to it, changed its title, and published it anonymously. In 1836, he published Katit le-ma’or (cf. Ex. 27:20), a work he had written 10 years earlier, in which he blasted the Hasidim’s use of alms boxes (labeled in the name of the Mishnaic figure Rabbi Me’ir, who came to be called Ba‘al ha-Nes) to raise funds for Hasidim in the Land of Israel; Perl and others regarded this as a new Hasidic custom rather than a traditional charitable practice.

Perl’s second major work, Boḥen tsadik, was begun in 1825 but was not published until 1838 in Prague. Here, satire and a utopian vision are joined together. He spins together a collection of letters, written, again, by “‘Ovadyah ben Petaḥyah” and his friends, who appear to be Hasidim at first but who finally throw off their disguise. The book begins (as in Divre tsadikim) with ‘Ovadyah’s desire to listen to reactions to Megaleh temirin, to see whether he had succeeded in his mission. By magical means, he is able to gain access to the discussions of Hasidim, and in the first part of the text, ‘Ovadyah “puts” several conversations into writing. The magical device that he uses to record the conversations, however, fills up with the information, and ‘Ovadyah can no longer record the talks. He needs to find an honest man to blow on the letters so that they will fly away. The main plot concerns ‘Ovadyah’s desperate search for a suitable man. Unlike Megaleh temirin, which presents Hasidim only in a negative light, here a broader and more complex picture emerges. Both Hasidism and maskilim are presented as corrupt men who lack the righteousness necessary to fulfill the magical task. Perl wittily and bitingly portrays the rabbis of Galicia, who in his view are flattering the Hasidim. The hero, who is the only honest and righteous man whom he finds, is a simple peasant, an opponent of Hasidism and a disciple of the Gaon of Vilna, who, in addition to working in the fields, studies Talmud with his teacher’s annotations.

In the struggle over the rabbinate in Tarnopol around 1837, Perl supported Shelomoh Yehudah Rapoport (Shir), who was finally elected, to the rabbis’ dissatisfaction. About the same time, Perl wrote his last memoranda to the authorities, including information about collections of funds by Yisra’el of Ruzhin, and accusing Yisra’el of complicity in the murder of a Jewish informer. Other memoranda touched upon far-reaching changes in Jewish society. He proposed, for example, closing the houses of study that provided universal free access to unmonitored literature, much of which was Hasidic and, in his mind, which led people astray.

Perl left a number of unpublished works in Yiddish, including a translation of Megaleh temirin (Yidishe ksovim; 1937) and a translation from German into Yiddish of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones. Although Perl regarded Yiddish as the degraded language of the masses, he was a master stylist in that language.

Perl’s rich library, containing dozens of important manuscripts, was left to his school after his death. The collection remained there until the beginning of the twentieth century. Remnants of his archive reached Jerusalem, including parts of satires he had begun to write, writings in German on various subjects, many writings by Lefin, and other drafts. Among the manuscripts are works by opponents of Hasidism in the spirit of moderate Haskalah and the manuscript of Divre binah by Ber (Birkental) of Bolechów. Some of this material has been published in recent years.

Suggested Reading

Jeremy Dauber, Antonio’s Devils: Writers of the Jewish Enlightenment and the Birth of Modern Hebrew and Yiddish Literature (Stanford, Calif., 2004), pp. 209–310; Joseph Klausner, Historyah shel ha-sifrut ha-‘ivrit ha-ḥadashah, vol. 2, pp. 283–320 (Jerusalem, 1952); Baruch Kurzweil, “‘Al ha-satirah shel Yosef Perl,” in Ba-ma’avak ‘al ‘erkhe ha-yahadut, pp. 55–95 (Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, 1969/70); Raphael Mahler, Hasidism and the Jewish Enlightenment: Their Confrontation in Galicia and Poland in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century, pp. 121–168, see also primary documents in the original Hebrew version Ha-Ḥasidut veha-haskalah (Merḥavyah, Isr., 1961), pp. 393–461; Jonatan Meir, Gilgulav shel megaleh sod: Kuntres Divre tsadikim le-Ribal ve-Yosef Perl (Los Angeles, 2004); Avraham Rubinstein, “Ha-Haskalah veha-ḥasidut: Pe‘iluto shel Yosef Perl,” Bar Ilan 12 (1974): 166–178; Dov Taylor, Joseph Perl’s Revealer of Secrets: The First Hebrew Novel (Boulder, 1997); Shmuel Werses, “Shiv‘im shenot ḥeker yetsirato u-fe‘ulo shel Yosef Perl,” Ḥuliot 7 (2002): 321–338.



Translated from Hebrew by Jeffrey Green